Let us first begin by discussing the colonial roots of ethnicity in Kenya. Suffice to mention that Kenya was a creation of the British imperial activities in East Africa during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
The ultimate colonization of Kenya by the British had a great political impact on pre-colonial Kenyan societies. All the societies lost their sovereignty as they were grouped together under a single colonial government that was headed by a governor.
Furthermore, new political boundaries were demarcated thus grouping together different ethnic groups under one political authority and often dividing one ethnic group between Kenya colony and her neighbours.
It is important to note that before the colonial period different ethnic groups in what came to known as the British East Africa Protectorate had their own systems of traditional governance. Any contact that existed between or among these groups was done on the basis that they belonged to different socio-political entities.
This kind of relationship was shattered by the advent of colonialism. A new kind of relations based on the idea that they belonged to the same political entity even if they practised distinct cultures emerged. The formation of Kenya African Union (KAU) in 1946 as a single nationalist, anticolonial movement was the ultimate political outcome of the initial colonial state.
The colonial state however was the brooding ground for ethnicity in Kenya’s politics. This was first seen in the colonial policy of divide and rule immediately after the colonial conquest. This involved, first and foremost, the accentuation of distinct ethnic identities and distinctions.
This state of affairs was formalized by the creation of ethnic-based reserves following a series of land ordinances. The establishment of colonial rule therefore forced Africans to adopt fixed ethnic identities. As Lonsdale argued with reference to Kenya colony:
African households bound themselves together in clans out of previously scattered allegiances, the better to claim or repudiate the right of chieftainship.
At a wider level, district boundaries lines on the map rather than shifting margins of subsistence and trade, began in the same way to mark out ‘tribes’ which claimed the ethnographic purity that the British expected of them, quite unlike the hospitable eclecticism that had existed before.
As a result, ethnicity and ethnic identity became essential attributes of the colonial experience. Developed and solidified in the initial years of colonial rule, ethnicity began to form the basic framework for Kenya’s political activity as the colonial state continued to practice a policy of divide and rule through the maintenance of a system of local administration based on ethnically distinct locations and districts, as is exemplified by the creation of Local Native Councils. Ethnicity was thus embedded in the administrative system, and therefore, in Kenya’s politics from the earliest days of the colonial era.
Furthermore, as the colonial state emerged, being basically a law and order state, with no welfare pretensions, ethnic organizations also served as welfare agencies awarding scholarships, (for example, Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) supporting Kenyatta during his studies in London), building schools and hospitals and so on.
When opportunities for political power came in the dying days of the colonial rule, these ethnic organizations quickly transformed themselves into political parties thereby becoming the major claimants of political power.
Manifestations of Ethnicity in Kenya’s Political Struggles
Ethnicity as a major factor in Kenya’s politics manifested itself in a number of ways in Kenya’s political struggles since independence.
These manifestations are ethnic alliances; political succession; political party formation, membership and voting patterns; ethnic hatred, suspicion and violence; government public appointments and political economy. These are discussed in details below.
Ethic alliances in Kenya began in the eve of independence and would continue even in the post-colonial period. As part of decolonization process the colonial government removed the barriers to the formation of national African political parties in 1959.
It should be mentioned here that the government banned African political parties following the outbreak of Mau Mau war and the subsequent declaration of the state of emergency in 1952.
The first political party to be formed after the ban was lifted were Kenya African National Union (KANU) and Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) in 1960.
This followed the return of the African members from the First Lancaster House Conference. The parties for lack of time to organize essentially built on an amalgamation of pre-existing district organizations.
It therefore goes without saying that these two political parties (KANU and KADU) were identified with particular ethnic groups. KANU at the time of independence was seen as a political alliance of the Kikuyus and the Luos. But it also had scattered support in other districts as well. This political party advocated for a unitary system of government.
KADU on the other hand drew most of its support from the Luhya, the coastal tribes, the Kalenjin and the Maasai. It was, therefore, a political alliance among the minority ethnic groups in Kenya.
These minority tribes feared the domination of the Luo and the Kikuyu and therefore advocated for a federal system of government (majimbo) to protect their ethnic interests.
Kenya won her independence in 1963 with two major political parties KANU and KADU that were seen as different ethnic alliances. However there was also a minor political party African People Party (APP) that was led by Paul Ngei. Soon after, KADU crossed the floor to join KANU.
The attainment of independence in 1963 and the crossing to the Government side by the KADU leaders in 1964 did not bring to an end to ethnic alliances in Kenya. The new ethnic alliances were brought about a struggle for leadership succession in KANU.
Suffice to mention, the Kenyan parliament that was exclusively occupied by KANU after the merger with KADU was now divided into two camps, mainly the radicals led by Oginga Odinga (the then Vice President) and B. Kaggia, and moderates led by T. Mboya and supported by President Kenyatta.
The political struggle between the two camps led to the resignation of Odinga from both the government and KANU and with a small band of followers crossed the floor to form the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU). The resignation of Odinga marked the final fallout between Kenyatta (a Kikuyu) and Odinga (a Luo).
The fallout between the two was accompanied by the deconstruction of the Kikuyu-Luo alliance and the construction of a loose Kikuyu- Kalenjin alliance after Moi a Kalenjin was appointed as vice president to replace Joseph Murumbi who had earlier resigned from that position. KPU would be banned in 1969 following a riot in Kisumu as will be discussed below.
The ban of KPU meant that Kenya became a de facto one party state. Consequently ethnic alliances became covert in Kenya’s political struggles. The country would become a de jure one party state in 1982 after Moi had succeeded Kenyatta as the president.
Ethnic alliances were also at the background in Kenya’s political struggles during the Moi regime until 1990 when political parties other than KANU began to reappear to advocate the reintroduction for multiparty political system.
The major political organization that was an expression of ethnic alliance during the period of multiparty advocacy was Forum for Restoration of Democracy (FORD) that was formed first as a political pressure group before transforming into a political party in 1991.
It was formed by a number of veteran politicians led by Oginga Odinga, Martin Shikuku, Maside Muliro, Ahmed Bamarihz, Phillip Gachoka and George Nthenge. The formation of FORD was reminiscent of ethnic alliances in Kenya during the eve and after independence.
The political organization was seen as a resurgence of a Luo – Kikuyu alliance during the KANU and KADU era. The political organization also received support from a section of the Luhyias of western Kenya. The pastoralist societies in Kenya formed an alliance with the Kalenjins of Rift Valley and remained in KANU.
After the reintroduction of multiparty political system in Kenya ethnic alliances were camouflaged as political party alliances. This was because political party formation in Kenya to a larger extent was done along ethnic lines as will be discussed below. Political party alliances began to take shape in earnest after the 1997 general elections.
Immediately after the elections there was a short-lived political alliance amongst the opposition parties with the intention of denouncing the presidential results in which Moi was declared the winner. This alliance began to falter with beginning of cooperation between Moi’s KANU and Raila Odinga’s NDP.
This cooperation became necessary because KANU which was declared the winner in the elections did not have the parliamentary majority for it to effectively pass government bills in parliament. A quick alliance was to be crafted to ensure that the government could enjoy a majority in parliament. KANU and NDP, therefore, began to cooperate within parliament. This cooperation was accompanied by ethnic realignment.
The hostilities that existed between Raila Odinga and his Luo ethnic group on the one hand, and Moi and his Kalenjin ethnic group on the other hand, ceased to exist. Luo Nyanza began to accommodate Moi and his Kalenjin ethnic group with ease. The Kalenjins also began to accommodate Raila and his Luo ethnic group.
On 18 March 2002, delegates of both KANU and LDP met at Kasarani Sports Centre, Nairobi, and began the process of merging (to form new KANU) and filling the new party positions. Those selected for the positions of the Vice Chairmen of the new party were: Uhuru Kenyatta from Central Kenya; Kalonzo Musyoka from Eastern; Musalia Mudavadi from Western; and Katana Ngala from the Coast.
The position of the party Secretary General went to NDP leader Raila. The way in which the party positions were distributed was to ensure a strong political force with a strong ethnic and regional base.
Since voting behaviour in the past two general elections was largely characterized by ethnicity and regionalism it was deemed necessary to maintain ethnic and regional balance in the sharing out of the positions. The idea was then to identify those who were regarded as ethnic or regional leaders and these were given top party positions with an expectation of forming a strong ethnic alliance as discussed earlier.
The merger between KANU and NDP was short-lived. Its collapse was occasioned by the anointment of Uhuru Kenyatta as the new party’s flag bearer for presidential elections.
The other ethnic and regional leaders who had been elected to key party positions and who also haboured presidential ambitions openly protested against Moi’s choice. The collapse of the merger also witnessed a deconstruction of the Luo-Kalenjin alliance that began with the cooperation between KANU and NDP.
In Kenya’s political struggles since independence the construction and deconstruction of ethnic alliances began with political elites at higher political levels and the masses accordingly re-aligned at the bottom.
The rebel group in the New KANU joined hands with the opposition and formed a coalition called National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). The coalition was between the LDP wing of KANU and the opposition NAK. They signed a memorandum of understanding to govern the formation of the government upon winning the election.
Mwai Kibaki became its single presidential candidate. This coalition became a strong ethnic and regional alliance as all the larger ethnic groups were incorporated. Even the Luo-Kikuyu feud which had characterized Kenya’s political struggles in the 1960s and the 1990s subsided.
Those who had earlier on enjoyed ethnic and regional support and failed to join the party were marked as the ‘enemy’ of their respective ethnic and regional groupings. They were, therefore, defeated in the parliamentary elections in their respective constituencies.
Some of them had even been members of parliament for a long period of time representing those constituencies. The casualties of this new political wave were: Musalia Mudavadi in Sabatia constituency; James Orengo in Ugenya constituency; Katana Ngala in Ganze constituency; and Sharrif Nassir in Mvita constituency. NARC won the December 2002 elections with a big majority with its presidential candidate, Mwai Kibaki, polling 62% of the votes cast.
After dislodging KANU from power, NARC began in 2003 to face a myriad of problems. First, unlike most coalitions, NARC was a pre-election coalition and therefore plunged into controversy soon after elections about the fulfilment of pre-election agreements. LDP began to express displeasure with the new president and with NAK over the distribution of cabinet seats.
The distribution ostensibly failed to follow the terms of pre-election Memorandum of Understanding that had had been entered into between the two coalition partners. The agreement had been that the coalition partners, NAK and LDP, share the posts on a 50:50 basis.
Second, some of the positions negotiated in the NARC pre-election pact were predicated upon a new constitution that had not been written yet. NARC partners, therefore, required mutual trust and commitment to the constitutional review process that would create the new positions in the government, notably the position of Prime Minister.
Some members of the coalition however were uncommitted to the partnership or changed position once personal election goals had been achieved through the coalition.
Although the existing constitution had no express provision of some of the positions negotiated in the Memorandum of understanding, section 16 of the constitution empowered the president to determine the structure and composition of his government. Kibaki, therefore, had an opportunity to create the positions of prime minister and deputy prime minister, thereby honouring the Memorandum of Understanding.
Third, strategic civil service appointments were reserved for NAK loyalists, whether publicly acclaimed as corrupt or above the requisite retirement age.
The strained relations between LDP and NAK also witnessed the gradual withering away of Luo-Kikuyu alliance which had led to the victory of NARC and a new ethno-regional alliance began to re-emerge between the Luos and the Kalenjins. The Luo-Kalenjin alliance became more solidified as a result of the referendum to the draft constitution that was held on 25th November 2005 and together they overwhelmingly voted “no” to the draft constitution.
As the 2007 general elections drew nearer the issue of which party to sponsor President Kibaki’s re-election became a real issue. He could not seek re-election on a NARC ticket because Charity Ngilu who was the Chair of the party refused to hand over the leadership of the party to the President.
Consequently a new political outfit by the name Party of National Unity (PNU) was formed to sponsor president Kibaki as it presidential candidate. The formulators of PNU made an attempt to make a strong ethno-regional alliance by co-opting those whom they thought commanded respective ethno-regional support.
As such the following politicians from different ethnic groups were brought within its fold. There was Mwai Kibaki who commanded the Mount Kenya region; Moody Awori and Musikari Kombo who were supposed to deliver the Western Kenya region especially the Luhyia votes; Simeon Nyachae who was thought to have a command of the Gusii; Ali Chirau Mwakwere and Suleiman Shakombo from the Coast; and Kipruto Kirwa who was to bring on board the support of the Kalenjins of Rift Valley.
On the other side of the political divide the opposition (LDP wing of NARC and some KANU members) had formed the Orange Democratic (ODM) movement which they discovered had been registered as a political party without their knowledge. They formed the Orange Democratic Movement-Kenya to differentiate it from the already registered ODM.
Due to internal wrangles mainly from Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, the two parted ways with Kalonzo supported mainly by then Kamba MPs remained in ODM-Kenya. Raila group negotiated the handing over of the already registered ODM to them from Mugambi Imanyara who had secretly registered the party with him as the Chairman.
The ODM-Kenya attempted to have an ethno-regional support by crafting a working relationship with Dr. Julia Ojiambo of Labour Party of Kenya (LPK). It was an attempt to bring closer the Luhyia of western Kenya because Dr. Julia Ojiambo herself is a Luhyia. This coalition did not have much impact as Dr. Ojiambo did not command effectively the Luhyia support.
The ODM party top membership is of particular interest. Being a monolithic party, its top decision making organ ‘the Pentagon’ was composed in such a way that it reflected ethno-regional balance.
Thus there was Raila Odinga from Luo Nyanza; William Ruto from the Kalenjin of Rift Valley; Musalia Mudavadi from Luhyialand; Najib Balala from the Coast; Joseph Nyaga from the Mount Kenya region; and Charity Ngilu from Ukambani who was allowed to vie in the forthcoming general elections on a NARC ticket.
There were other smaller parties that were cooperating with ODM, for example, the United Democratic Movement (UDM). Suffice to mention the ODM was dominated by the Luo-Kalenjin alliance. This alliance had a backing from a section of the Luhyia and a section of other ethnic groups. This was seen in their voting behaviour as will be discussed below.
After the 27th December 2007 general elections a coalition government between PNU and ODM was formed following the disputed results that led to widespread violence in the country as will be discussed below.
After the formation of the coalition government where Kibaki became the president and Raila Odinga the Prime Minister ethnic coalitions began to emerge in readiness for Kibaki succession. The first to emerge was the KKK (Kikuyu – Kalenjin – Kamba) alliance that brought together Uhuru Kenyatta (a Kikuyu), William Ruto (a Kalenjin), and Kalonzo Musyoka (a Kamba).
This was to an ethnic alliance between the Kikuyu, the Kalenjin, and the Kamba as it was being led by political leaders from those ethnic groups. This ethnic political alliance was disparaged by some politicians as promoting tribalism in the country. Thereafter the three politicians who were seen to be members of that alliance quickly and strategically began to shake off the KKK tag.
As the 4th March 2013 general elections were nearing there were efforts to craft ethnic political alliances camouflaged as political party alliances that were perceived as the winning team.
Thus there was the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) that brought together Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula. CORD was seen as an ethnic political alliance of the Luo, the Kamba and a section of the Luhyias since its leaders came from those ethnic groups.
This coalition also had support from a section of other ethnic groups in Kenya. Another ethnic political alliance was the Jubilee alliance. This political alliance was predominantly an ethnic political alliance of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin. It brought together William Ruto a Kalenjin and Uhuru Kenyatta a Kikuyu.
This alliance also had support from a section of other ethnic groups in Kenya. These ethno-political alliances (CORD and Jubilee) were formed on the basis of personal interests.
These personal interests were quickly transformed to be ethnic interests and this was reflected in the voting patterns in the 4th March elections. CORD received most of its votes from Luo Nyanza, Kambaland and a section of the Luhyia community.
The Jubilee coalition on the other hand received most of its votes from the Kalenjin and the Kikuyu. After getting support from these major ethnic groups in the alliance the two alliances registered varied support from other ethnic groups in the country.
Other political alliances included the Amani Coalition of Musalia Mudavadi and Eagle Alliance of Peter Kenneth. These two alliances did not master much support from the intended ethnic groups as was attested to by their performance in the general elections.
The Jubilee alliance emerged the winner from the concluded elections and this was seen as a triumph of one ethnic alliance over the other.